This evening I was shucking corn with my two-year-old son (“shucking corn”—that’s something you should hear my two-year-old say; you should pretty much hear him say anything; his bright, laughing eyes and water-clear voice dazzle me). And suddenly a ray of memories shone down: the first time I shucked corn. I was maybe six or seven, sitting on the lawn outside my best friend, Cache’s, house. His mom sat on a chair and taught me how to shuck corn and peel off the strings. I remember being concerned about the strings. She sang songs: “Go Tell Aunt Rodie” and “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.” It was the first time I had ever heard those songs, and they were strange and interesting to me. Music stirs memories like almost nothing else. Songs can transport me.
Another time this week memory came like revelation. I was driving home with my family from my grandmother’s funeral in California and it was raining outside and suddenly (that’s the word—suddenly) a smell came from outside. It was a mixture of summer rain and road and maybe air conditioning and something else. But it smelled just like a t-shirt I loved as a kid. I hadn’t thought about that t-shirt for years. A bright yellow Bart Simpson shirt. Man, I loved that shirt. Steinbeck writes, “The memory of odors is very rich.” And that is true. To this day certain smells convey me in time and being to another, earlier version of myself. The smell of fall and books brings back-to-school butterflies. And there’s this smell, a mixture of heat and meat and street that takes me to Mexico, to the feelings of my mission. The smell of dead dog takes me there, too, but with less fondness.
I’ve often wondered what heaven will smell like. Maybe honeysuckle. We had a honeysuckle bush outside my door when I was a kid. We have one now. Heaven might smell like that. Or my wife’s cinnamon rolls. That’s a smell I could abide for eternity. Or just summer rain. Or babies’ hair. Or caramels. I think the land of Canaan was said to flow with milk and honey because those are the ingredients for caramel—the flavor of paradise. Forget Wonka’s chocolate river; heaven’s rivers run caramel.
I’ve thought a lot about the power of memory. Just before he died, Jesus told his disciples that he would send a Comforter. Then he tells them that the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, will bring all things to their remembrance. So memory is a form of revelation, the way it overtakes us and seizes us and spirits us away. Memory, like music, is evidence to me that I have a soul, an inexplicable foray into the eternal. Linear time is so once-centered, but memory brings a sense of timelessness: a moment can return, and with it a whole series of emotions and feelings. The connectedness between remembering and feeling seems evidence of the holy nature of memory. God's voice can speak to me through memory. I believe that. Often it’s the memory of mortal joy—as we spoke of memory one day in a class I was teaching, one student told me of a tree she used to love and how she wept when they cut it down. There was genuine feeling in her telling. Her memory sparked one in me and I was taken to the orchard across the street from my childhood home. There was this tree that had this almost-throne at the top—three prongs of a branch all growing out then up. I would sit up in that seat on top of the world and feel mighty, brave, and gleefully alone. Another student told me of a day in Oregon when she played all day at the beach with her cousins and they found this sort of platform. It was heaven for her. It was a heartbreakingly lovely memory of human happiness, the kind of thing I think we'll look back on with great affection in the next life. The best memories usually involve communion—laughter and love and all that. But we remember pain, too, that we might have the wisdom to enjoy. Well, it’s a remarkable thing.